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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cold War Swap

Ross Thomas

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To purchase The Cold War Swap

Title: The Cold War Swap
Author: Ross Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966
Length: 260 pages
Availability: The Cold War Swap - US
The Cold War Swap - UK
The Cold War Swap - Canada
The Cold War Swap - India
Un petit coup de main - France
Kälter als der Kalte Krieg - Deutschland
Il mercato delle spie - Italia
  • First UK edition published under the title: Spy in the Vodka
  • The Minotaur edition comes with an Introduction by Stuart M. Kaminsky

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Our Assessment:

B : over the top, but enjoyable, particularly as period piece

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 5/2/1967 Julian Symons
TLS . 23/2/1967 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Refreshingly upbeat and cheerful spy story, with real heroic heroes and fine cast of villains." - Julian Symons, Sunday Times

  • "A toughly professional spy thriller (...) with excellently set-up quadruple-crossing traffic; and, what's more, long enough for shapely working out." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cold War Swap is narrated by Mac McCorkle. After his discharge from the military he stuck around in Germany, opening 'Mac's Place' in the Bad Godesberg district of Bonn, a place you can get a solid meal and well-mixed drink that had proven popular among embassy staffs and others. McCorkle also found himself with a partner in the business, Mike Padillo; he didn't have much choice about giving him a stake in the business, but the multi-lingual Padillo turned out to be an ideal partner, helping make a great success of it.
       Padillo is sometimes called on by the American intelligence services to do little jobs for them and he needs a cover in Bonn; Mac's Place is an ideal one. It works out well for all involved, with Padillo occasionally called to duty and reluctantly -- he doesn't enjoy the work, though he's good at it -- taking off for a few days or weeks. McCorkle isn't really involved in any part of that business -- but suddenly finds himself in the thick of things after he flies back from a brief Berlin outing and the person in the seat next to his, a Herr Maas, turns out to have an appointment at, of all places, Mac's Place.
       Maas' appointment does not go well -- and Padillo asks McCorkle to wait until he's hightailed it out of there before calling the police, and to say that he hadn't been there. The police investigation is straightforward enough, but McCorkle finds himself pulled into something bigger: first of all there's Maas, whom he can't quite shake, and then there are Padillo's sometime employers, concerned that Padillo missed a flight he was supposed to take and wondering what happened to him.
       Padillo gets word to McCorkle that he needs some help -- in Berlin. It's Maas -- who pops up yet again (as he will continue to do) -- who eventually fills McCorkle in on what the situation appears to be: two American mathematicians working for the National Security Agency defected to the Soviet Union -- an embarrassing repeat of the 1960 Bernon (misspelled as 'Vernon' here) F. Mitchell and William H. Martin defections -- but the USSR is willing to give them back, in exchange for another US agent, "the kind that the States keeps denying exist". Padillo is the perfect candidate: "an amortized agent. They can write you off like a tax loss". But Padillo got wind of what they were planning, and he has his own ideas.
       Those ideas are pretty wild: the plan is to kidnap the two defectors before the Soviets can turn them over, and then leverage them to guarantee Padillo's safety (and freedom from the undercover job: "I can go back to running a saloon"). Padillo knows the defectors will be transported via East Berlin -- and that that will be the perfect opportunity to nab them. McCorkle agrees to do what he can to help, and Padillo can count on some inside help in East and West Berlin too, and so they go for it.
       Parts of the plan go better than others. Getting from East Berlin back into the West is hardly straightforward -- but even beyond that, they have to get everyone back to West Germany proper, which is another challenge. And while helpful Maas seems to turn up at every turn, he also has his own agenda(s), and it comes as no surprise that he has alternate plans in store at various points.
       The Cold War Swap is, unsurprisingly, a steeped-in-the-Cold-War thriller, and nicely captures an East Berlin that's still adjusting to the new-built Wall. Mid-sixties Bonn is more peripheral, but Thomas captures that well, too, while The Cold War Swap very much reflects its times in other respects as well: there's no issue about carrying guns on board various flights, car seat belts are an unusual feature, and people light up cigarettes everywhere. Lamenting that he's worn out by what he's been put through all these years, Padillo admits: "I drink too much, and I smoke too much" -- but that applies pretty much across the board. There's a bona fide alcoholic too -- a supportive and well-connected friend who also complicates matters -- but he's just at the extreme end of a top-heavy spectrum, as the characters are drinking at every hour of the day and night, and under all circumstances. (Fast cars are another Thomas-favorite: there's rather a lot of talk about automobiles -- though admittedly they feature significantly, too.)
       The thriller aspects of The Cold War Swap are fairly enjoyable, if quite over the top. A lot of people wind up getting killed -- almost casually, incidentally --, making for a somewhat ridiculously corpse-littered story, but the deaths are mostly treated so casually that it doesn't even seem that out of the ordinary. There's an exceptional amount of double-dealing, too, beginning with the American authorities' intention to give up Padillo, but it certainly makes for a twisty story that keeps bringing the surprises. And with good guys Padillo and McCorkle trying to do the right thing, there's a nice (and clear-cut) contrast between sides.
       Aspects of the novel certainly are cringe-worthy -- the two defectors are homosexual, and: "The chief reason that the Soviets haven't publicized these new defectors is that they have become increasingly effeminate", and Thomas presents them as such when they come into the picture -- but there's a welcome upbeatness to McCorkle's narrative, even when he suffers, as Thomas avoids falling back on the far too prevalent cynicism and grimness of so many similar thrillers. It's not outright cheerful, either -- fortunately; there's too much death and cynical behavior for that to work -- but at least the edges are softened.
       This was Thomas' debut, and there's a sense of trying a lot -- maybe a bit too much -- out here, but he has fun with it, and readers probably will, too. The Cold War Swap is very much of its time, in a variety of ways, but it is still pretty good entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 September 2018

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The Cold War Swap: Reviews: Ross Thomas: Other books by Ross Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Ross Thomas lived 1926 to 1995.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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